Adjutant Myak pressed the chime on the outside of Commander Raguul’s private quarters and waited. He could have used the comm, but both he and the Commander preferred the personal touch.As the door slid open, he stifled a yawn, extending his claws to scratch vigorously behind his left ear. He’d get no more sleep that night either. The starship Khalossa was already on Yellow 2 alert.
Commander Raguul lay propped up on one elbow, regarding him balefully. The set of his ears showed his irritation at being disturbed in the middle of his night.
“The duty crew thought you’d like to know we’ve just received a transmission from the Sirroki, sir.”
“The Sirroki?” Raguul frowned, ears flicking briefly. “She’s the one that missed the rendezvous in the sixth quadrant, isn’t she?”
“That’s right, sir. You just posted her as officially missing.”
“You didn’t wake me just for that, surely. What was it this time? Not more freak storms?”
“Not this time, sir. They’ve found the Others.” Myak could hardly keep his tail from swaying with pleasure.
Raguul sat up. “Found them?”
“Yes, sir. The Sirroki was shot down by them on a planet designated as KX 1311. Our people are in hiding with a second group of aliens and request that we go to their aid.”
“Not natives, sir, colonists, a new species. Sub-Commander Kolem thought you might want to hear the original transmission yourself.”
Raguul was already out of bed and dressing. “Tell me about the Others,” he ordered as he pressed the seals on his jacket.
“They’ve a substantial base on the planet, plus two domed cities and garrison posts at each of the four colony towns. They’re capable of putting up a formidable resistance.”
“Has–whatzisname–transmitted the locations of these occupied zones?” demanded the Commander fumbling with his belt.
Myak moved forward to help him. “Captain Garras, sir. Communications is still decoding the message, but we believe so.”
“These colonists, what’re they like?”
“They’re upright and bilateral like us, and there’s a telepath among them,” said Myak, stepping back as he finished with the Commander’s belt.
Raguul’s tail began to flick as his ears and head swiveled round to look at Myak. “Telepaths, you say.”
“Yes sir. It seems that our telepath has formed a link to one of the female colonists.”
“Has he now?” Raguul took the brush Myak was holding out toward him and flattening his ears out of the way, ran it cursorily across the top of his head. He handed it back to his adjutant.
“Apparently, sir,” said Myak, returning the brush to the night table.
“Any more tactical details such as the numbers of the Others on the planet, their firepower, capabilities of their craft?”
“There could be, sir. As I said, they’re still decoding the message,” replied Myak, following the Commander out.
“Has a course been set in for KX 1311?”
“They’re waiting for your orders, sir.”
“Tell the bridge to have a chart of sector 6 set up on the main screen.”
When Raguul reached the bridge, it was humming with suppressed excitement. Sub-Commander Kolem rose from his seat, offering it to the Commander. With a nod of thanks, Raguul sat down.
“Have you finished decoding the message?” he asked.
“Just finished sir,” said Communications. “Putting it on audio now.”
Raguul and his bridge crew sat and listened to the voice of Mito Rralgu, the communications officer from the scouter Sirroki. Though terse, the message held all the information they had hoped it would.
Getting to his feet again, Raguul turned to Sub-Commander Kolem. “I want yourself, Tactics, Weapons and Sub-Commander Chaazu in my office today at the fourth hour. See that the chart of sector 6 is set up on the holo-table. Keep the ship on Yellow 2 alert and ensure Chaazu gets the message. With a week of transit time ahead of us, I want those ground troops of his ready before we reach KX 1311.”
“In the meantime, relay that message to my comm. Sholan High Command will wandt to hear it. The bridge is yours.”
Raguul was finishing his meal in the bridge mess when he was paged through the comm system.
“Approaching KX 1311 now, sir,” said Sub-Commander Kolem’s voice.
With a growl of annoyance, he gulped down his mug of c’shar and got to his feet. Changing his mind, he turned and neatly speared the remaining piece of meat with a clawtip. These disturbed meals weren’t doing his gut-ache any good. Up until a week ago this had been a boring, routine mission. He had a feeling it wasn’t going to last. Mop-up operations had a way of getting very messy.
Kolem rose and stood aside for the Commander.
Raguul waved him back. “Sit, sit. I’ll stand for now,” he said, looking at the view screen displaying the KX 1311 system. “I presume there’s no sign yet of that back-up we were promised?”
“Not yet, sir.”
A sudden burst of sound filled the bridge, then stopped.
“Our long-range scanners have activated a coded message from the life pod, sir,” said the comm officer.
“Get onto it immediately,” said Raguul.
“I’m picking up an incoming signal in sector five, sir,” said Navigation. “It’s an Alliance fleet identity. They should be on screen any moment now.”
A portion of the upper right-hand quadrant of the screen appeared to waver, then steady as a group of ships materialized out of jump.
“Identities coming in now, sir. Battleship Cheku, accompanied by the cruisers T’chelu, Rryabi, Vriji, and the Vek’ihk, a Sumaan craft.”
“Signal from the Cheku, sir,” said the secondary communications officer. “Checku’s comm officer says Commander Vroozoi wished to speak to you in private. He adds that the tanker and escort ships are following.”
“Patch it through to my briefing room,” said Raguul, turning away from the screen.
“Force Commander,” said Raguul, a flick of his ears acknowledging the other’s superior rank. “What can I do for you?”
“Raguul. I see you struck it lucky this time,” said Vroozoi. “High Command says you’ve found a den of these Others.”
“Yes, Commander. As you know, our report says there are only a few thousand of them on the planet. Though I doubt we’ll need all your firepower, it’s still comforting to have it. We aren’t equipped for an extended military campaign.”
“Each to his own, eh, Raguul?” Vroozoi dropped his mouth in a lazy smile. “That’s why we’re here.” His tone changed and became sharper, more businesslike. “I want you to join me an hour from now for a tactical briefing. You’ll get a copy of your new orders then assault craft will remain on the Khalossa, but they and their crew will form an integrated part of my task force. Once the planet has been secured, you’ll be in charge of the diplomatic side. I’ll see you within the hour,” he said, reaching forward to close the channel.
Raguul frowned at the comm. He’d come across Vroozoi before. An ambitious male, that one, determined to climb as high as he could within the forces. Rumor had it that there were more than a few people who had had the misfortune to be between him and what he wanted. Their shattered careers littered his past like fallen leaves. Raguul didn’t intend to become one of them
He sighed and, leaning forward, paged Myak requesting him to join him. Switching off the comm, he got to his feet and headed back to his bridge.
Sub-Lieutenant Draz looked up from the scanner display as the Commander reentered the bridge. “Scans show no signals going in or out. I’d hazard a guess that our people have done some heavy damage to their coastal base. The Others appear to be blind and dreaf.”
“Let’s hope you’re right. The last thing we want is a prolonged campaign. I’ll take that seat now, Kolem,” he said. “Order my shuttle made ready. I’m to join Vroozoi on the Cheku within the hour.”
“Yes, sir,” said Kolem, hurriedly standing up and moving to one side.
“Message decoded, sir. It’s for our resident Leskas,” said the communications officer.
“What?” Raguul swung round to face him.
“It’s from the Sirroki’s telepath, Kusac Alda, to our Leska pair.”
“You said that,” said Raguul testily. “What’s it say?”
“It’s security coded, sir,” the comm officer said apologetically.
“Then pass it on, and tell them I expect an explanation,” said Raguul, pressing his hand to his stomach as a stab of pain hit him. He grimaced as he kneaded his gut to relieve the pressure. He just knew this mission was going to be messy. Some people had weather-wise joints. He had a trouble-predicting gut.
“Message incoming from Shola, sir,” called out the secondary comm officer.
Raguul stifled a groan. This was all he needed. “I’ll take it on the main screen. Patch it through.”
The image of Chief Commander Chuz of the Sholan High Command replaced the view of KX 1311.
“Commander Raguul,” he said, ears flicking in acknowledgement. “You’ve located the Others.”
“Yes, Chief Commander Chuz. We’ve located some of them at least. Seems they were using this planet as a hospital and R&R base. They call themselves Valtegans. I’ll be able to tell you more when we’re in contact with out people on the surface.”
“I want information from these Valtegans as soon as possible, Raguul; so does Alien Relations. I’ve put you in charge of interrogating all prisoners. I want to know as a matter of urgency why they destroyed our colony worlds. A1Rel also wants information collected on this new species of natives. Get your First Contact people onto that. Send us the results of the Sirroki’s debriefing as soon as you have it; at least it’ll give us a starting point.” He stopped talking to glance briefly to one side.
“I’ve been asked to remind you to convey the message from Konis Aldatan to Kusac Alda as soon as possible. Until we received your report regarding the Sirroki and the Others, Konis had no idea where his son was. Kusac disappeared a year ago and hasn’t been in touch since.”
“I’ll pass the message on Chief Commander.”
“Good. Keep me informed of your progress.” The screen went blank.
A glass of white liquid appeared in front of Raguul. He took it gratefully from Myak. “Thank you,” he said, downing the content and handing the empty glass back to his adjutant. “Couldn’t you make it taste more palatable?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not, sir. I’d have to see dispensary about that.”
“Then do it, please. I’ve a feeling I’m going to be taking a lot of this vile brew.”
“Rhian and Askad, our resident Leka pair, are waiting, sir,” said Myak.
“send them in.”
The two telepaths came onto the bridge. One look at the set of their ears and Raguul knew their news was not good.
“Commander, we’re here to report on the message we received from the life pod. It was from Kusac Alda, telepath on the Sirroki,” said Rhian, the female.
Raguul nodded and waited.
Rhian locked at Askad.
“Well?” prompted Raguul. “One of you had better tell me!”
“Kusac’s requested our intercession on behalf of his Leska,” said Askad.
Raguul frowned at them, his ears flicking briefly. “His Leska, you say. As far as I’m aware, he doesn’t have a Leska. Myak, what do you know about this?’
“We have him listed as a grade five telepath, Commander. At that basic a level of talent they don’t for Leska Links,” replied his adjutant.
“I’m afraid he has on now, Commander,” said Askad.
“His Leska isn’t a Sholan, she’s one of the people who lived on the planet. A Terran.”
Raguul closed his eyes. “His Leska is an alien?”
“Yes, sir. He’s asked that we meet him on Keiss and …” began Rhian.
“What they call their world, sir. He wants us to meet him on Keiss and take charge of his Leska. He’s afraid of her being seen as a specimen for the Medics to study. Apparently she’s a healer.”
Raguul took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “What in Vartra’s name is he trying to do?” The question was rhetorical. “We meet another telepathic species for the first time in five hundred years and he goes and forms a Leska Link to one of them without even a by your leave! They haven’t even been investigated yet! Surely even the densest cub would be aware of the diplomatic implications. I’ll have his hide on my wall for this!” he promised grimly.
“Commander, you can’t create a Leska LInk,” said Rhian.
“It’s a gift from the Gods. It just happens to you, you have no power over it.”
“He’s not responsible for forming the link, Commander,” said Askad.
Raguul let loose a string of invectives. “Then you’d better get permission from Mentor Mnya to go down to this… Keiss… when it’s been secured!”
“See to it now. Dismissed!”
When they’d left, he turned to Myak. “This situation has all the makings of a powder keg ready to blow up under us. What the hell is Kusac playing at? With his background he should know better!”
“Oh, it gets better, sir,” said Myak quietly. “While Rhian and Askad were with you, contact was established with Captain Garras of the Sirroki. He’s requested an armed escort for his first officer who is under arrest for mutiny. He Challenged Kusac Alda against orders. This same male is making allegations against Kusac of mentally controlling this Terran female and forcing her to become his Leska for sxual resons. I know, sir,” he said, seeing his Commander’s eye ridges go up. “That means Kusac and his Leska will have to face a Telepath Guild hearing.”
“As you said, it gets better by the minute, ” said Raguul testily. “The Gods know what Vroozoi will make of all this! So Kusac’s a runaway, is he? Well, at least he’s shown more spirit than most telepaths! His father’s going to create some grief for us when he learns his son’s Leska is an alien. Perhaps we’ll all be lucky and it won’t be a permanent link. She isn’t a Sholan, after all.”
“If he claims she’s his Leska, I’d believe it, sir,” said Myak. “Telepaths don’t make mistakes like that, and I’ll warrant he’s no fifth grade either. May I also suggest it might be politic not to mention anything about his Leska to his father for the moment? We need to debrief the Sirroki crew, establish a liaison with these new aliens, and assess them and their telepaths before we can think about dealing with clan matters.”
“I think that’s a very sound suggestion, Myak,” said the Commander. “Deal with matters on a priority basis. We are on a war alert, after all. I take it I can leave the matter of his father in your capable hands?”
Myak closed his eyes and forced his tail to stay still “Of course, sir,” he said faintly.
“Excuse me, Commander,” Draz interrupted. “Your shuttle is ready,sir.”
Raguul got to his feet. “You’re coming with me, Myak. If Vroozoi has heard this transmission, I’ll need all your abilities to talk my way out of him insisting on getting involved in this.”
“It would be extremely unfortunate if Force Commander Vroozoi were to become involved,” said Myak, following him from the bridge into the lift. “However, as you say, sir, this matter is potentially explosive. Knowing the Force Commander’s reputation, I think he’ll be more than glad to leave it to you.”
“Let’s hope you’re right. Main landing bay,” Raguul ordered as the elevator doors closed.
Three days had passed since they’d rendezvoused with the Cheku. They had been days during which Raguul would have preferred to have denned with a spine-covered wild hog. Luckily, true to Myak’s prediction, the one problem they had avoided was the one concerning Kusac and his alien Leska.
Raguul entered the bridge, taking over from Sub-Commander Zyan. The main wall screen showed the progress of their assault on Keiss.
“Are the ground troops ready?”
“Yes, sir. The drop vehicles launch in one minute, followed by the assault cruisers and destroyers,” replied Sub-Commander Chen at Tactics. “The strikers will launch last.”
“Put the Cheku’s bridge comm on audio.”
“Yes, sir. Switching to audio now,” siad Communications.
“I presume we have the full tactical and weapons crew on the bridge?”
“Ready and waiting, sir,” said Khodi from Weapons.
The bridge crew sat watching the main screen as the heavy troop carriers were launched. Surrounded by their attendant swarm of assault craft, they headed inexorably toward the plant’s surface. Onboard the Khalossa, Raguul felt theirs was the more difficult task: that of waiting for the outcome of the battle below. Both they and the Cheku were to remain within planetary range of Keiss, monitoring the system in case of incoming alien craft. Supporting them were the thirteen escort destroyers.
“Trying to locate the Sirroki’s crew now, sir,” said the comm.
“I think you’d better come and see this for yourselves,” called Davies from his concealed position at the mouth of the cave.
Garras, sitting near the entrance, pricked his ears, turning to face the circle of daylight.
Mito leapt to her feet and ran outside. “They’ve come!” she yelled, her voice all but drowned out by the now audible sound of high level airborne vehicles. There was a general rush to the cave mouth as everyone surged into the open to stare up at the approaching craft. Even as they watched, a group of them banked towards the Valtegan base, the faint glow of energy weapons lancing down. Plumes of smoke began to rise, accompanied by the sounds of distant explosions.
“Alright!” yelled Davies, waving his rifle in the air as a salute to the avenging craft.
“My God, the sky’s almost black with them,” said Skinner, watching as more vehicles headed out toward Geshader and Tashkerra.
“They certainly know where they’re going,” said Nelson. He turned to Mito. “Just what did you put in that message?”
“The location of every strategic Valtegan unit,” she said smugly. “It seems they got the message correctly.”
“Get under cover,” ordered Skinner. “We’re far from safe yet, this is only the beginning.” He pointed to the south where some Valtegan craft had just taken to the air. “If they see us, we’ve nowhere to hide. Believe me, within hours this planet will be crawling with Valtegans trying to escape capture. Get moving!” he bellowed as everyone hesitated, torn between a desire to watch the forthcoming aerial battle and the need to remain hidden.
There was a mad scramble to get back under cover and to secure a good vantage point at the mouth of the cave. Garras took advantage of the confusion to have a quiet word with Skinner who glanced sharply at Guynor then nodded. Casually he went over to Anders and Hughes, drawing them aside. A few words with them and they returned to the group at the cave mouth, flanking Guynor on either side.
Having observed the interchange, Kusac limped over to where Carrie stood on tiptoe, trying vainly to see over the heads of Jo, Edwards, and Davies.
“I told you they would come,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“You were right,” she said, her tone somber. “Time doesn’t stop for anyone.”
Kusac tightened his grasp reassuringly. “You see your future up there in the skies, not Sholan war craft. I understand,” he said.
Come, it’s safer if we move away from them, he sent, nodding in the direction of Guynor. Anders and Hughes had just taken hold of the Sholan male, placing him under close arrest.
Now the Khalossa is here, Garras doesn’t trust Guynor’s parole. His hatred of us is so strong he may not wait for the results of my hearing or his court martial before deciding to take the law into his own hands.
Carrie turned away from the cave mouth, moving out from under his hand.
“I wish I had your confidence in the future,” she said, unwilling to look at him.
Acutely aware of her growing unease and withdrawal from him over the last few days, Kusac took her by the arm, urging her further into the cave with him. He led her past the group gathered round the Sholan transmitter, toward an empty table at the far side of the main cave, sensing as he did so her reluctance to be alone with him.
Carrie, I think it’s time we talked.
For a moment he felt her resist then, as he eased himself down with his back to the wall, she slipped onto the bench facing him. Inwardly he sighed, trying to block his annoyance over yet another of her unsubtle hints that she was a person in her own right, apart from him.
“I prefer to vocalize,” she said in Sholan.
Kusac shrugged, leaning his elbows on the table. “It makes no difference to me,” he said mildly. “I said it was time to talk, and it is. I know you can shield some things from our Leska bond, and should I choose to pry, I could probably find out what.” He held up his hand to forestall her as he felt the indignation and denial that rose to her lips.
“I choose instead to ask you,” he continued. “So tell me why this is the first time in three days that we’ve been alone.”
Carrie examined her hands. “I’m not avoiding you, Kusac,” she said at length.
“True,” he agreed amicably. “You’re just avoiding being alone with me.”
“I’m not really. I only want to spend what time I have left on Keiss with my own people. It came as a shock to realize how soon I would be leaving everything I know behind, and how much there was to leave.”
“You’ve said these words before, Carrie. While I recognize their truth, I’m listening for the words you have not spoken.”
Carrie looked up with a faint smile. “I forgot that half truths aren’t possible between us.”
The smile faded and she sighed, reaching for his hand. She held it between both of hers, stroking the dark fur before turning it over to look at his palm. It was much like hers, flesh colored, the fingers long and narrow. The sharp tipped claws were retracted now.
“You know what I feel about you, Kusac,” she said, as he turned his hand to clasp one of hers. “Our Link makes it impossible for me to hide it, and I know what you feel for me. Your conviction that our Leska bond must be like the Sholan one–linked as life mates, body and mind –frightens me.”
His hand tightened on hers, claws automatically coming out, to be retracted almost as soon as they touched her.
“Do you wish the Link hadn’t been forged?” he asked, trying to keep his voice and thoughts neutral.
“No,” she replied quickly, frowning. “I don’t wish it undone, but I wish I had had a choice! It seems that all my life other people or circumstances have dictated what I do. Just for once I’d like to have some say in the matter.”
“What, then, do you wish to do?” he asked, cursing inwardly as his tail gave an involuntary flick against her legs. “Do you wish to remain on Keiss?”
“I don’t want to stay here,” she said. “No, I intend to leave with you. Apart from anything else, we have to attend your guild hearing and Guynor’s court-martial. I wouldn’t let you go through those alone no matter what I felt for you.”
“Thank you,” he said drily.
“So much has happened since we left my home,” she said, her eyes taking on a distant look. “Do you realize it was only about a month ago? Who could guess so much could happen in so short a time?”
She came back to the present, giving herself a little shake, a gesture that was almost Sholan.
“I just need some time to adjust to the changes in my life, to decide what I want to do.” She looked intently at him. “Could you do that? Would you let me have some time to myself?”
“If it means so much to you, then take the time that you need,” he said, carefully keeping his voice level.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I know what this costs you.” She released his hand and rose from the table, smiling before she left.
Left alone, Kusac clenched his hands into fists, his claws drawing blood from his palms. The pain stopped him thinking, stopped her picking up the worry that would otherwise be in his mind. Facts about telepathic links, Leska Links in particular, were what he needed. The Telepath Guild’s files on board the Khalossa held the information. Once there he could access them; then he would know for sure what at least a normal Sholan Leska Link entailed.
For now he needed a distraction, something to do to keep his mind occupied. If only Vanna’s medikit carried some psychic suppressants, he could have escaped the constant awareness of Carrie that was rubbing his senses raw. Her decision to keep him at a distance mentally and physically was exacerbating his situation. Unfortunately, investigatory teams like theirs didn’t normally include telepaths so the drug wasn’t contained in the standard medikit.
He heard a cry of pleasure from the direction of the transmitter and looked up.
“We’re in contact with the Khalossa!” shouted Vanna, catching his eye.
Kusac grinned and, unclenching his hands, pushed himself to his feet and went over to join them.
“How’re things going?” he asked her.
“Fine. Six or seven Valtegan ships made it off planet, but were tracked by our craft. Two have been allowed through the cordon, the others were destroyed.”
“Why let two through?”
She shrugged. “I presume to warn the Valtegans that their R and R planet has been returned to its rightful owners.”
Kusac digested this for a moment. “Surely they’ll retaliate?”
“Garras thinks not,” said Mito. “If they used Keiss as a relaxation base, then it must be far enough from their war zone to be safe. Being at war, they won’t want to start another one with us, will they? It would split their resources.”
“I expect they’ll leave well alone now that they know there are two races capable of retaliating in this sector of space,” said Garras.
“Any other news?” Kusac asked him.
“They plan to airlift us out of here as soon as possible and take us to Seaport to rendezvous with the Terran leaders. They’re sending down our top negotiators to begin the treaty talks.”
“Seaport’s a good choice. Part of the original Terran craft is there with their computer records and transmitters. Any news about the Terran colony ship?”
“They’ve sent a message for two escort ships to meet it and bring it directly here,” said Vanna. “Keiss is shortly going to seem very crowded.”
Kusac nodded. “Life moves on,” he said.
Vanna frowned as she looked at him. “That’s a strange thing to say.”
“It just seems a very rapid solution for a problem that was almost insurmountable a few weeks ago.”
“You’re being too profound,” she said, showing her teeth in a wide Sholan grin.
“There’s two personal messages for you, Kusac,” said Mito, looking up at him, a strange expression on her face.
“Personal?” asked Kusac, looking startled.
“Yes. Rhian and Askad, Leska Telepaths on board the Khalossa, thank you for the message and say that all has been arranged and they will meet you at Seaport.”
“Ah,” said Kusac, glancing sideways at Garras, ears flicking with embarrassment but the Captain appeared engrossed in listening to the transmission.
“And your father says he is glad you are well. He says he awaits with interest the pleasure of meeting you and your Leska.”
Kusac took a deep breath. “Damn!” he swore.
All the eyes of the little group were now on him.
“Is there some problem?” asked Vanna quietly.
“Just more complications I could do without,” he said, sitting down beside her and stretching out his injured leg. “I’d hoped to tell him myself. I should have known better.”
“How, in a military emergency such as this, could he get a message through from Shola?” asked Mito.
“How did he know you’d found a Leska?” asked Vanna. “Did someone on the Khalossa inform him?”
“I don’t know,” said Kusac, shrugging. “Just leave it, please.”
“It seems there’s more to you than meets the eye,” said Garras, glancing appraisingly at him before returning his attention to the transmitter.
“He must know someone important to be able to use the military communications to send a personal message during a state of war,” Mito continued, unwilling to leave the matter alone.
“I said enough, Mito!” said Kusac, standing up. “Captain, I claim a telepath’s privilege of solitude. I need to leave the cave. Have I permission to go?” he asked curtly.
Garras glanced briefly at Vanna, obtaining an almost imperceptible movement of her ears in assent. The risk of him encountering Valtegans on the run was outweighed by his need for solitude.
“Granted. If you find game while you’re out, it would make a welcome change to our diet.”
Kusac nodded and, spinning round, left, barely aware of Carrie’s startled reaction to his outburst.
By late afternoon a Sholan craft arrived to ferry them to Seaport. They landed in the square in front of the Eureka. It was a huge metal edifice, only a fraction of its former height but still dominating every other building in Seaport. Skai and the other guerrillas headed off to the local inn, Skinner accompanying Carrie and the Sholans through the entrance.
Garras stopped briefly to talk to the Sholan guards inside, handing Guynor over to their custody. That done, Skinner led the way, passing by the elevators to the upper levels where the communications and records departments were housed, heading for the room that had been the Terran’s council hall before the advent of the Valtegans.
It still bore the scars of the occupation, but had been returned to the semblance of human use by the local townsfolk. A huge carved wooden table sat in the center of the room surrounded by chairs. At the far end of the table, a small group of Sholans and Terrans sat. They looked up as the new arrivals entered.
“Carrie! Richard!” called their father, getting to his feet and coming forward to meet them.
Richard threw Carrie a rueful glance.
“I didn’t think we could avoid him for long,” he said quietly.
“What possessed him to bring David too?” she said.
Kusac stepped closer to her. “David’s here?”
She looked up at him. “Yes, but don’t worry. I can handle him.”
Kusac flicked his ears in irritation. “I dislike him. The man is cruel and self opinionated.”
“Carrie,” her father said, hugging her when they reached him. “You shouldn’t have left like that. We were extremely worried about you. Thank God Richard found you.”
“I was fine, Dad. I had Kusac with me,” she said, returning the hug.
“Ah yes. Kusac.” Peter Hamilton regarded him critically.
Kusac bore her father’s appraisal patiently, knowing it was only the first of many obstacles that he and Carrie would have to face. Briefly his viewpoint altered and he saw himself through both his Leska’s and her father’s eyes. Tall, dark furred, and fairly powerfully built, the pointed ears added to his feline look. The face was humanoid yet still catlike with vertically slitted amber eyes set above high cheek bones. The nose and mouth, though bifurcated like a feline’s, appeared more humanoid.
A wave of dizziness hit him along with the realization that Carrie was making sure her father saw the person that he was rather than the animal he had impersonated during his stay at the Inn. Then his vision cleared and he sensed her father’s conclusion that his appearance, despite the heavy musculature that hinted at a strength beyond that of the Terrans, was pleasing rather than threatening.
Gods, cub, you need to learn some subtlety! he sent.
Time for that later, she replied.
Her father was nodding and holding out his hand. “It seems we owe you everything. Had it not been for you, we wouldn’t yet be free of the Valtegans. Been wounded again, I see,” he said, looking at the bandage around Kusac’s thigh.
Kusac took the hand, grasping it lightly and releasing himself before Peter Hamilton’s grasp triggered his claws.
“It’s almost healed,” he said. “I owe your family my life. It seemed a fair exchange.”
Peter Hamilton smiled and turned back to his children.
“Richard, I see you’ve managed to keep body and soul together.”
Richard grinned. “Just about,” he said.
Her father turned to allow David to join the group.
“I’ve brought someone with me who’s very anxious to see you, Carrie,” he said.
“Hello, Carrie,” said David. “You really shouldn’t have left so precipitously, you know. Not exactly a mature act, was it, to cause so much distress? Still, you’re back with us now.” He stepped forward to give her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.
“Hello, David,” she said, sidestepping him to stand beside Kusac. “I see you haven’t changed. You shouldn’t have bothered to come, you know. We said our goodbyes the day I left Valleytown.”
David stopped abruptly, an angry look crossing his face.
“Carrie, that’s hardly any way to talk to someone who’s been as concerned over you as David has,” scolded her father.
“I don’t give damn what David thinks or feels, Father. I want nothing to do with him. He needn’t stay on my account.”
Let’s leave, Kusac, she sent.
Kusac put an arm around her waist, drawing her to one side. He inclined his head briefly to her father.
“You will excuse us, sir, but we have to see my commanding officer. I’m sure you understand that Clan matters have to come second to duty.”
He drew her towards where the Sholans were grouped together round a section of the table, aware of her father and David’s puzzled anger at their abrupt dismissal.
“Carrie, come back,” her father called. “You shouldn’t be here. These are important discussions, not some social event.”
She stopped, turning to face him again.
“I am here officially, with the Sholans. I have another mental link, this time with Kusac. It makes me part of his ship’s crew now.”
“Mental link?” said her father, confused.
“A link like I had with Elise. I told you I wasn’t returning home and I meant it,” she said, her voice and face unyielding. “When the ship leaves Keiss, I’m going too.”
“What nonsense is this, Carrie? Just because you looked after Kusac and helped him find the rest of his crew doesn’t mean his people want you on their ship. That’s work for the diplomats, not you. It’s time for you to return home to your family and friends.”
“I have no friends on Keiss, and you were prepared to barter me to David against my wishes for the sake of the family.”
“That’s different . . . ” he began.
“Yes, it is. This is what I choose to do.”
Kusac’s heart began to lighten. Maybe there was hope for them after all.
“Don’t talk utter rubbish, girl,” her father stormed. “You’ll do as you’re told!”
A voice from behind interrupted them, the heavily accented Sholan breaking the angry group apart.
Kusac released Carrie and turning sharply, saluted the officer behind him. There followed a brief interchange before Kusac turned back to them.
“Sub-Commander Zyan asks that this discussion be delayed until we join the others. There are many facts that need to be investigated before the matter can be fully resolved. He also asks that I act as interpreter until I have imprinted the knowledge of your language to a telepath from the Khalossa who will then remain with you as your permanent interpreter.”
“Telepath? Language imprint?” echoed Mr. Hamilton, looking thoroughly confused and exasperated. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. And what’s all this got to do with Carrie?”
“I’m sorry but I have to ask you to respect our security. This matter is not for public discussion,” said Kusac, throwing an evil openmouthed grin at David.
“As one of the leaders of the Terran community on Keiss, I am sure you are aware of the need to keep certain matters confidential. If you would rejoin our people at the table?” Kusac stepped back, indicating that Carrie’s father should return to his place.
David moved to follow him but before Kusac could bar his way, Richard reached out and grasped him by the arm.
“Sorry mate, but if I’m not included, then you certainly aren’t.”
David tried to shake free. “Anything that concerns Carrie concerns me,” he blustered.
Richard forcibly led David away as Kusac escorted Carrie after her father and the Sholan officer.
“I think my sister has already made her opinion of you clear,” said Richard, his voice drowning out David’s complaints. “No matter what deal you and Dad have hatched, if you go near her again, you’ll not only have Kusac to deal with but me as well.”
Once the group round the table was settled again, Kusac performed the various introductions, nodding briefly when he introduced Rhian and Askad, the Leska Telepaths.
Sub-Commander Zyan began to talk, and Kusac turned again to Carrie’s father.
“The Sub-Commander wishes to touch on the matter of your daughter, since he wants to get Clan matters dealt with first.”
“He realizes you do not have a recognized Telepath Guild amongst your people, so he asks that you bear with us and accept what we say until the matter can be proved to you.”
“Very well, but I still don’t see how it involves Carrie.”
Kusac relayed his answer to the Sub-Commander, waiting for his reply.
“Your daughter is not only a powerful telepath, but a healer,” said Zyan through Kusac. “Telepaths are in a minority amongst our people, but healers are even rarer. As well as that, she has developed a mental link with one of our personnel–myself,” he continued.
“Leska bondings happen occasionally amongst Sholans, but never before has there been one with a member of an Alien race. In fact, we have never come across another telepathic race until now. It is important, therefore, that we assess and study what gifts your daughter has, how it is possible that she should have a link with one of our people, and the benefits to both our species.”
“That’s impossible,” her father said flatly.
“I assure you it has happened, Mr. Hamilton,” murmured Kusac, still listening to the Sub-Commander.
“Your daughter will go aboard the Khalossa with our resident Leskas, Rhian and Askad,” Kusac indicated the two Sholans sitting to one side of him, “who will help the Tutors assess her abilities. Since the matter also involves a Sholan, I’m afraid we have to insist.”
Mr. Hamilton took a deep breath. “Insist is rather a strong word.”
“Had you the facilities and personnel capable of making this assessment, we would assist you on Keiss. Since you have not, then it must be done on the Khalossa,” said Zyan, through Kusac.
“How do I know my daughter will be . . . ”
“She’ll be safe,” interrupted Kusac, glancing at Zyan. “I would let no harm come to her, believe me.”
Skinner leaned forward.
“We haven’t any choice, Hamilton. They’re a reasonable lot, they won’t harm her; Kusac will see to that.”
Peter Hamilton looked sharply from Skinner to Kusac. “There’s something here I’m missing. What is it? What kind of link do you have with my daughter?”
“I’m linked to her like Elise was, Mr. Hamilton. If they harm her, believe me, I will feel it. No one will harm her. She is important to both of us, and to both our species. We place a very high value on yelepaths and healers.”
The Sub-Commander interrupted again. After a brief conversation, Kusac turned back to Skinner and Mr. Hamilton.
“It will be tomorrow morning before a shuttle returns to the Khalossa, and Carrie will be on board with the rest of the crew from the Sirroki. Once the preliminary talks are finished here, Sub-Commander Zyan will return to the ship, but that won’t be for several days yet. When he does, you are welcome to accompany him and see your daughter for yourself.”
Mr. Hamilton hesitated briefly. “I have no option, do I? I take it you’ll be returning with Carrie?” he asked Kusac.
“Then I’ll have to trust you to look after her for me.”
Kusac relayed the answer.
“Since your daughter is not involved in any of the other matters we have to discuss, Rhian will escort her to the Inn across the road where our people are being billeted. We can arrange for any personal items she might want to take with her to be collected from her home. An armed scouter and an escort can take them to Valleytown should she wish it.”
“I’ve nothing I want to take,” said Carrie, looking bleakly at her father as she rose to leave.
Kusac reached up to touch her hand comfortingly as she passed.
“I hardly recognize her,” her father said, watching her walk away with the Sholan female. “That’s not the girl I raised. What happened to her out in the forest?” he asked Skinner.
Skinner glanced briefly at Kusac. “She grew up, Peter,” he said. “They all do. They grow up and away from you, which is as it should be. She was never cut out to be a colonist, you know. You kept her too long as it was. Let her go now.”
“The Sub-Commander would like to turn to other issues now,” interrupted Kusac. “Have you been briefed on the matter of your ship, the Erasmus?”
Mr. Hamilton nodded, reluctantly turning away from Skinner.
“A message was sent to one of our vessels in that sector of space, and two ships have been dispatched to escort it to Keiss. It should be here within a week.”
“A week!” he exclaimed.
“Our technology is more advanced than yours,” said Kusac, with a deprecating gesture. “It is suggested that you do not contact the ship until it is in orbit around Keiss, then presumably you have a coded signal to waken the various personnel on board.”
“We also need to contact your home planet so as to make parallel treaty negotiations with Earth as well. A deep space relay will be arranged for you to enable you to contact Earth using your own transmitter. Once you have appraised them of the situation here, we can arrange for one of our ships to call there and bring the necessary personnel to Keiss. Our flagship, the Khalossa, will be stationed in permanent orbit here to protect you until such time as between us we have organized a defensive force not only for this area of space, but also your home planet.”
And so it continued until late into the night.
The next morning, Kusac was dug out of his makeshift bed by Mito with the news that the incoming shuttle had landed and he was needed to imprint the telepath. That done, he went in search of Carrie and food. Linking into her, he found her across the road at the inn where they had met Skai.
It had been requisitioned for Sholan use, and was serving as their main canteen and accommodation area. Carrie was sitting with Vanna, Mito and Garras.
He joined them, ordering a meal when the innkeeper’s daughter came to the table.
“How did the talks go?” asked Vanna.
Kusac wrinkled his nose in disgust. “I don’t think I could work with the Diplomatic Guild,” he said. “All facts and dancing round the truth. Not the easiest or most interesting of work.”
“Well, it’s nothing to do with us any more. It’s back to the ship in a few hours, and the usual routine.”
Kusac shook his head. “We’re in permanent orbit here for some time.”
“Ah, protection duty and routine search flights,” said Vanna.
“To say nothing of flushing out the last of the Valtegans still loose on the planet,” agreed Mito.
“The troops will handle that,” said Garras. “Could be interesting. Hunting another intelligent species for the first time will provide an unusual challenge. I’ve found out that the Valtegans have been making suicide attacks on our troops and the few they’ve managed to pin down have killed themselves rather than be taken captive.”
“Why should they do that?” asked Carrie.
“We won’t know until we can ask one of them,” said Garras. “It could be conditioning or it could be a racial characteristic. Did they display any hive creature attributes? You’ve been exposed to them longer than we have.”
“They acted as independent beings rather than part of a group mind, but how do you begin to study an alien race anyway?”
“That’s the job of our first contact teams. Doubtless AlRel will send some personnel down from the Khalossa,” said Vanna.
“AlRel?” asked Carrie.
“To assess us or them?” asked Carrie.
“Both,” grinned Vanna. “You don’t think they’ll take our humble word for what we think of you, do you? Oh, they’ll debrief us and note our conclusions and findings, but that will have to be backed up by hard facts from a team of specialists.”
Kusac’s meal arrived and he began eat.
“They’re taking Guynor on board the shuttle,” said Mito, glancing through the window. “It can’t be long until we leave.”
All heads turned to look as Guynor, under an armed escort of two soldiers, was led into the waiting craft.
“What’s likely to happen to him?” asked Carrie.
“Mutiny when on a war footing, that at least will be a dishonorable discharge,” said Mito.
“No,” said Garras, looking at Kusac. “It’s more serious than that. There are . . . political complications.”
Kusac looked away and toyed with his food. “My fault, then,” he murmured.
“Nothing to do with you in a way. I found out he was from Khyaal, one of the two colonies destroyed by the Valtegans,” said Garras. “When we crashed on Keiss and realized that we’d found the Others, that was when his attitude changed. I presume it was because he was powerless to hit back at the beings who had destroyed not only his family, but his world. Then you two arrived. It gave him the perfect opportunity to release his pent up xenophobia on you.” Garras sighed. “He was a capable officer, but we can do without his attitude in the Forces.”
“And the political implications?” prompted Mito.
“I can’t discuss that matter with you since the court-martial is still pending,” said Garras, refusing to be drawn any further.
“By the way, I was none too pleased that you sent a message to the ship without my knowledge,” he said to Kusac. “Had you told me your fears for Carrie, I would have had no objections, but I thought you could have trusted my judgment a little better.”
Kusac dipped his head, flattening his ears backward in apology.
“Well, it’s done now,” Garras said, somewhat mollified. He checked his wrist unit, noting the time. “I want everyone on board the shuttle in ten minutes,” he said, rising to leave. “Carrie, Rhian and Askad will meet you there. I would suggest you take your leave of your father before it gets any later.”
Kusac watched her go, aware that she was still maintaining the distance between them despite what she’d said to her father the night before. Well, he’d promised her some space, he’d have to wait now until she came to him.
“Is Carrie alright?” asked Vanna quietly. “I know how difficult a time this is for her.”
“She’s coping,” he said, pushing his plate away. “She just needs a little space at the moment.”
Vanna grunted. “She doesn’t know her own mind. She’s subject to the same fears as us and responds to the same reassurances. What she really needs is you beside her to lean on.”
“I’ll deal with it my way, Vanna,” said Kusac, getting up.
Carrie boarded the shuttle first with Rhian and Askad, sitting at the rear of the craft. The Leska couple sat together, opposite her, leaving the seat beside her empty, presumably for Kusac.
A sense of isolation swept over her all of a sudden. Around her were only Sholans, not one of them familiar. The only one she knew, Guynor, was in the forward area under close guard. She thanked whichever Gods were looking after her that she hadn’t had to pass him.
Human voices and footsteps sounded on the gangway and cautiously she peered over the seat in front. It was a group of her people, including Skai. Under her breath she cursed, watching them move to the front section. What the hell was Skai, not to mention the others, doing going up to the Khalossa?
Ducking back out of sight, she lowered her mental shield, trying to sense what they were saying. Before she could, she picked up the crew of the Sirroki boarding, including Kusac.
With relief, she sent a thought to greet him, feeling his surprise, followed by a resulting wave of pleasure. Almost as if she was using her eyes, she could “see” him pushing through his friends to reach her.
He stopped by the seat, towering over her as he looked down.
Can I join you? he asked.
She smiled up at him, the relief apparent in her face as she nodded.
Kusac sat beside her, eyes narrowing.
What’s upset you? he sent.
Nothing. I’m just glad you’re here. From up front the Terran voices seemed loud and harsh in comparison to the low sounds of the Sholan conversations around her.
Kusac put his arm across her shoulders, drawing her up against him. There’s nothing to worry about, he sent reassuringly. You won’t be alone. I will be there, as will your other friends.
I know. She relaxed against him, letting her barriers down a little and closing her eyes as she felt his low purr begin. Exhausted by the effort of keeping the block against him up and fielding her father’s questions and demands, she felt herself nodding off to sleep.
Kusac felt her consciousness drift and as she began to slowly collapse against him he moved closer, easing her down till she lay sleeping across his lap. Automatically his hand went to stroke her hair, fingertips gently touching her cheek. His need for her flared and this time it took more concentration than before to push it to the back of his mind where he could contain it.
A low chuckle from Askad drew his attention as the shuttle door was sealed for take off. He looked over at the other male.
I can see that being of different species is not a problem to you or your Leska, Askad sent. The Link is already working its magic.
No, not the Link, Kusac replied. This is ours, the Link only enhances what we have.
Even better. It will make life easier for you both.
Her mind seems very similar to ours. Rhian ventured. Perhaps being with us on the Khalossa will not be as large a step as you feared.
Perhaps. There hasn’t been time for us to get to know each other properly yet, replied Kusac, ears flicking briefly.
What’s to know? Your minds are linked aren’t they? You are aware of each other’s feelings and strong surface thoughts, there is no need to know more, chided Askad.
Our Link is stronger than that. I know all her thoughts , I feel all her fears and joys as if they were mine. She’s become a part of me now. His attention was on Carrie and he missed the apprehensive look that the two Sholans exchanged.
Then the problems must be lessened with such close understanding, sent Rhian.
Must they? I know that what she calls pain will hurt me, that what she thinks of as love, so do I, but the rest . . . His thoughts trailed off into a silence that was filled by the humming of the engines.
Chyad waited impatiently for Maikoe to open the door.
“The rumors were true,” he said, before she had a chance to greet him.
“What rumors?” She moved aside to let him enter.
He nodded cursorily at the others as he stepped over them toward the chair that Kaedoe hastily vacated. “The ones about the Terrans coming on board,” he said, turning to face her as she let the door slide closed. “I traveled up in the elevator with one of them, a female.
“What are they like up close?” She returned to her seat.
“They smell strange,” he said, perching on the edge of the chair. “Like us but different. Unsettling. This one was either small or a youngling. Hre face was flatter than ours and hre skin is hairless except for on the head.”
“Hm,” she said, looking thoughtful as she picked up her mug. “Oh, help yourself to a drink if you want one.”
Chyad got up and went to the dispenser.
“I’ve just been telling the others about my interesting day,” she said.
“What did you find out?” he asked, returning to his seat.
“There were Terran collaborators. Mostly their females, many of whom went to work in the domed cities. The female telepath was one of them. I’ll bet it was her you saw.”
Chyad grunted in disgust.
“Naisha found out that one of the Sirroki crew is facing a court-martial for Challenging their own telepath.”
“Guynor,” said Naisha. “You remember him, surely? He’s one of us. He came from Khyaal.”
“I saw them taking someone off the shuttle under guard. Thought he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Why’d he Challenge the telepath?”
Maikoe put her mug down and sat back in her chair. “He Challenged the female first, but he was stopped, so he Challenged the telepath instead. He went all the way, too: a Death Challenge, no less.”
Chyad sat forward, ears pricking with interest. “For what?”
“Because of the female Terran. He accused him of using his talent to make her pair with him.”
“And did he?”
Maikoe shrugged. “The trooper I spoke to didn’t know any more.”
“I don’t like it, Maikoe,” he said, shaking his head. “Why didn’t the Valegans kill the Terrans? They killed everyone on Khyaal and Szurtha. What was different here on this world? I have a strong feeling that this could be a trap. Allying ourselves with the Terrans could be the worst thing we’ve ever done. There are bound to be collaborators still on the planet, and having betrayed their own kind once, they won’t have any qualms about betraying us.”
“This world has fewer people on it,” volunteered Khay. “It could simply be that they didn’t see the few Terrans here as a threat.”
“I don’t agree with that,” said Ngalu. “If they let them live, there has to be a reason. I think Chyad’s right. They could be laying low, ready to signal the Valtegans when they think we’re at our most vulnerable.”
“There’s got to be something we can do,” said Maikoe. “There’s an official get-together for those of us who lost family in the seventh level mess in an hour’s time. Maybe if enough of us protest about this treaty, they’ll listen to us.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” said Chyad. “In fact, don’t say anything about how we feel if you go to the meeting. If we want to do something about this treaty, then we’ll have to do it ourselves, and we can’t do anything with the military protectorate looking over our shoulders. Believe me, if they get the faintest notion about how we feel, the protectorate will have us in the brig so fast our feet won’t touch the ground.”
Naisha looked uncomfortably at the others. “Look, I think we might be overreacting,” she said. “We’ve no proof that these Terrans are in league with the Valtegans. They’d been here for years before our colonies were destroyed. The Terrans could be victims just as our families were.”
Chyad took a swig of his drink and put the mug back on the table. “You could be right, Naisha,” he conceded. “What we need more than anything else is reliable information. Most of us work in different departments. Let’s see what we can find out. Does anyone know any of the Sirroki’s crew?” He looked at the other five people in Maikoe’s crowded room.
“I’ve flown with Mito Rralgu before,” said Maikoe, “but I wouldn’t say I really know her. Khay has, too.”
Khay looked over at her in surprise. “I don’t remember her,” he said.
“Just take my word for it,” Maikoe said.
“Well, see if you can get the chance to talk to her. The rest of you, see what gossip you can substantiate. Jakule,” he said, turning to the only trooper in the room. “You see what you can find out from any of your cronies running ground patrol duties.”
Jakule nodded. “I’ll see if I can get down planetside to talk to some of the Terrans,” he said.
“Just do as you’re asked, Jakule,” said Chyad, his tone sharp. “I don’t want you drawing attention to yourself. Ask your friends in the smoke den, see what they know. They must have managed to set up some black market deals in new narcotics by now.” His tone was full of contempt. “You’d better get on your way if you plan to make that meeting,” he said, looking round the rest of them. “I’ll be in touch. Remember, say nothing to anyone else at this moment, and let me know if you hear anyone else talking out against the treaty or the Terrans.”
He waited til they’d gone before getting up to fetch another mug of c’shar.
“What are you planning?” asked Maikoe, following him with her eyes. “You agreed far too readily with Naisha.”
“One or two of the others believe we’re right, but they’re all easily led,” he said. “I meant what I said. If we want to stop this treaty, we’ll have to do it ourselves.”
“You haven’t answered my question. What do you plan to do?” she repeated.
“I’m thinking that the quickest way to stop the talks if for there to be a Terran death on the Khalossa.”
Maikoe’s mouth fell open in shock. “You plan to kill one of them?” Her voice came out almost as a squeak.
Chyad frowned. “These talks aren’t going to take long. Can you think of a better or quicker way?”
“Aah, um. I haven’t’ actually been thinking along those lines,” she admitted.
“Then start thinking that way now, because I can’t see any act more guaranteed to make the Terrans back out of the talks.”
“It sounds like a suicide mission, Chyad,” she said. “I don’t feel like departing this life yet, thank you.”
He drained his mug. “I’ve no intention of getting us caught. That’s why I told them to say nothing of how they feel at this meeting. I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow. They’re one or two people I need to speak to. Try to find out where your friend Mito is and have a word with her. See what she thinks of the Terrans’ relations with the Valtegans.”
“Why are you so against the treaty?”
“Because I know the Terrans are in league with the Valtegans.”
As the shuttle set down on the landing bay, she woke, yawning and stretching.
“Why are my arms and legs never long enough when I want to stretch them?” she asked, stifling another yawn.
Kusac opened his mouth in a grin, the outer edges of which were beginning to curve, Terran style. “Are you sure you have no Sholan blood, cub?” he asked with a deep purr as he sat up.
Maybe it’s catching, she sent with a grin of her own. “Where do we go now?”
“You go with Rhian and Askad for the moment. I’ll have to accompany Captain Garras and the others for a debriefing. I will join you as soon as I can.”
The Sirrokicrew left the shuttle last, accompanied by Rhian and Askad. Carrie hesitated briefly at the top of the ramp, then Kusac’s steadying hand was there to reassure her as they stepped out into the chill and glare of the landing bay. As the cold air struck her, she shivered, remembering the last time she’d been in a spaceship. It was as cold here as it had been on the cryo level on the Eureka.
This isn’t the Eureka, Carrie, Kusac sent. We don’t have cryogenics on board. What happened to your mother can’t happen here.
I know, she replied, giving herself a small shake. I’m all right.
It was with relief she noted that there was no sign of the Terrans. All around her was the hustle and bustle of the various craft being serviced and refueled. At the far end of the bay, through a group of disembarking Sholans, she saw the retreating backs of Guynor and his guards.
We’re holding the others up, he sent gently, his hand tightening on her arm briefly.
She nodded and made her way down the gangway with him. At the bottom of the ramp her meager bag of possessions lay waiting for her.
Vanna sniffed the air dramatically as they all headed across the bay to the main exit.
“Gods, but it’s good to be home again!” she said. “The familiar smells of reprocessed air, my own room, a shower and a comfy bed! Shall we meet up for a meal in an hour or two?” she asked, looking first at Carrie then at Kusac.
“Sounds good,” said Carrie.
“Rec level mess?” asked Vanna, as they stopped outside the elevator, waiting for it to return to their level.
Reluctantly Kusac nodded again.
The doors slid open and they stood back, waiting for those on it to leave. Carrie moved surreptitiously behind Kusac, trying to avoid the openly curious looks.
They piled into the lift, crowding toward the back of it to make space for the pilot and crew of one of the shuttles.
Sensing Carrie’s need to orient herself, as well as her slowly rising tide of panic, Kusac leaned down to speak to her. “We docked on the lower level bay, our main one. Now we’re going up to the ship level where we change elevators.”
“The ship has two types of levels. The first thirteen are where our ground forces live and work, the levels above that are the ship levels, where all the officers, pilots and those involved in running the Khalossa live.”
“Why separate levels? Aren’t you allowed to mix?”
“Yes, of course, but apart from the main mess and the concourse where the supply store and the bars are, the troopers tend to stick to themselves. Being ground troops. they don’t have a lot in common with us.”
The doors opened, and Rhian touched Carrie gently on the arm, drawing her attention. “This is our level,” she said.
Panic welled up and she was unable to take that first step away from Kusac’s side. She looked up at him.
“I’ll join you as soon as I’m finished,” he reassured her. “You’ll be fine with Rhian and Askad.”
“I’ll see you later too. You won’t get rid of me that easily!” joked Vanna as Carrie took a deep breath and followed the Leska pair out.
The doors closed and they continued on up to the administrative level.
“Is going to the Rec level mess so soon a good idea?” Kusac asked, his voice low. “Wouldn’t one of the smaller mess areas be better?”
Vanna shook her head. “She’ll have to mix with the rest of the ship’s crew soon enough, Kusac. Now is as good a time as any.”
“I think it’s too soon,” he said. “Everything we do is being rushed. Too much too soon,” he repeated.
Vanna shrugged. “The decision is yours, Kusac. You know her better.”
“That’s just it, I don’t,” he said tersely.
Though the rest were dismissed after only a few hours of grueling questioning, Kusac’s continued presence was requested by the officiating member of the Alien Relations Guild. Half an hour later he made his way to the nearest communicator booth with the official’s words still ringing in his ears.
“Have you any idea of the political implications involved in your Link with this human girl? You have? Well, I’m glad to hear it, because I’ll want a full explanation of why it happened from you and the Telepath Guild within the next few days! Her father is their equivalent of the planetary governor, and I’ll wager he’ll be none too impressed when he realizes the connotations of your association with his only daughter. Nor will he be overly pleased to discover she’s now part of the Sholan Forces because of that association!”
That was the least of what he’d said. Even the memory of that interview made Kusac wince. He keyed in the code for Rhian’s quarters but received a busy signal, then a message from Askad saying Rhian and Carrie were waiting for him in his room.
Cursing, he headed downwards. He should have arranged to meet them in their quarters rather than let them assume she was moving in with him. With her human frontier colonist morals . . . Within five minutes he was palming open the door.
Rhian rose as he entered. “You were quicker than we anticipated,” she said. “I expected you to be another couple of hours at least. I’ll see you both later, once you’ve settled in.”
“Isn’t this your room?” asked Carrie, looking from Rhian to Kusac.
“Good gracious, no!” she said with a laugh. “This is a single room. You’ll be moved to Leska quarters but probably not till tomorrow.”
“I thought I was staying with you,” said Carrie, getting up from the chair. “No one said anything about me living with Kusac. I can’t do it. I won’t.” There was a rising note of panic in her voice.
Rhian hesitated, sending a puzzled look in Kusac’s direction.
“It’s alright, Carrie” said Kusac, remaining where he was by the door. “There’s no need for you to stay here. It was just assumed that you would. I’m sure Rhian wouldn’t mind you living with them for a few days till we sort things out.”
She’s not ready for this yet. She needs a little time to get used to our ways, he sent to Rhian. Can’t she stay with you?
“Of course you can stay with us,” said Rhian, “if you’re sure that’s what you want?”
“Yes,” said Carrie, grabbing her bag before the Sholan female changed her mind. Then, as she realized the implications, she looked at Kusac. “It isn’t that I don’t . . .” she faltered.
Kusac made a dismissive gesture with his hand, tail flicking briefly. “It’s alright, cub,” he said. “I understand. Stay a few days with Rhian and Askad till you know your own mind better.”
“If you’re going to meet up with your friends at the mess, we’d better hurry,” said Rhian. “I’ll have her there in about an hour, Kusac.”
Kusac shut the door behind them, tail twitching in annoyance as he walked over to the bathroom. Unfastening his belt he pressed the seals on his jacket, taking it off and flinging it on his bed in passing. He was tired, mentally and physically tired, of trying to understand Carrie and keep pace with her moods.
He’d studied the Touiban and Chemerian cultures and even worked with them for a while, but that had been on Shola and those aliens had been experienced space travelers. She was not. He’d never been involved in First Contact before. Studied it, yes, but the reality was entirely different, especially when the alien involved was his Leska.
Despite their Link, despite their closeness, every forward step he tried to take with her was like moving through a thornbush. He needed time to think through what he’d picked up about her culture during his stay with her in Valleytown and compare it with the memories he had assimilated from her. Maybe then he could anticipate the problems before they appeared. At the moment they seemed to stumble from one crisis to another and that was no way to build a relationship. Perhaps some time on his own was what he needed, too.
He stepped into the shower, turning on the water, and reached for the soap container. What was Carrie’s problem anyway? They both knew how they felt about each other, so why the difficulty over their pairing? Her people took one partner for life and though his didn’t, he was offering her the same. She wouldn’t lose status among Sholans by being his Leska, quite the opposite. It was considered a mark of favor by the Gods, Vartra in particular, to have a Leska. But an alien Leska? How would that affect his life?
He sighed, stopping that line of thought and letting the hot water sluice over him, washing the soap and grime away and easing some of the tension from his muscles.
His mind began to drift again. Leskas. Now that he was back on board the Khalossa he could find out what a Leska link involved. Hurriedly, he switched off the water and, grabbing a towel, headed back into his bedroom. Switching on the desk comm, he keyed in his ident and logged into the Telepath Guild library for their files on Leskas.
He toweled himself absently as he scanned through the general information; then, as the subject divided into detailed topics, he found that certain files were sealed.
Damn! That boded ill. It was even more vital that he have access to those files. He sat down, weighing the risk of discovery now against the certainty that his identity was going to come out into the open within a few days. Resolutely he punched in his own security code, opening up the remainder of the files. As he read further, he forgot everything else.
A chime sounded from the comm and he blinked, taken by surprise. Reaching out, he keyed in the vidiphone channel; Vanna’s face came on the screen.
“Is everything alright, Kusac?” she asked, an ear twitching in concern. “Carrie’s already here with us. Are you coming?”
Mentally he gave himself a shake. “Yes. I’ll be there in ten minutes,” he said. “Sorry.”
She nodded. “See you.”
The screen blanked, returning him to his files. He closed the channel and switched off, realizing with a shiver that he was still damp.
Picking up the discarded towel, he began to rub himself vigorously but it did nothing to dispel the chill he felt inside.
Rhian and Askad lived on level 20. Their quarters were the more spacious ones reserved for Leska pairs and boasted a small lounge and two bedrooms. Carrie was shown to a room the same size as Kusac’s had been.
“You have the room with the bath,” said Rhian, indicating a door to the rear of the bedroom.
“How come you have two bedrooms?” Carrie asked, dumping her bag on the floor.
“This is Askad’s room, when he chooses to use it,” Rhian said, stuffing the contents of a couple of drawers into a cupboard. “You can use these while you’re here. I have the larger room, which we’re both using at present.”
She moved over to the wardrobe, clearing a space for her unexpected guest there, too. “Why should we want separate rooms?” Rhian turned round to look at Carrie, cocking her head on one side, ears turning in her direction. “Why not? We have our own lives to lead, and occasionally one of us meets someone nice with whom we wish to spend a few days or weeks.”
Misinterpreting her startled look, Rhian grinned in the open-mouthed Sholan style. “We work for Alien Relations,” she said. “I can pick up very little from you telepathically as yet, but the ‘Why?’ was so loud I think even the untalented could have heard you!”
She handed Carrie a thick toweling robe. “Here, go and have a bath. After a month living rough, I’m sure you’re feeling itchy and uncomfortable. Admin will catch up with you in a day or two and make sure you’re issued with all the essentials. I’ll lend you what you need till then.” With that she was gone, leaving Carrie to her own devices.
The bathroom was easily navigated, and though there wasn’t the time for a long soak, she emerged feeling refreshed and clean for the first time in several weeks. As she toweled her hair, she came back through to the bedroom.
An oval bed dominated the room. Gingerly she sat on the edge of it, half afraid she would roll into the central bowl-shaped depression. Unbidden, an image of a curled-up sleeping Sholan sprang to mind. The memories from Kusac were blending into hers now as she began to experience life in his culture. It was unsettling.
She sensed Rhian outside the door before she heard the knock.
Carrie opened the door, admitting Rhian and an armful of brightly colored clothes.
“I have some clothes I can lend you until you have the time to buy your own,” she said.
“I’ve brought some things with me, thanks,” Carrie said.
“Let me show you them anyway,” said Rhian, depositing her bundle on the bed. “Certain plain colors denote the guilds and cannot be worn by anyone other than guild members. As a telepath, you are entitled to wear purple like us and it would be wise to be seen wearing it from the first so everyone is aware of your status.”
“What status?” asked Carrie, an edge to her voice. “Do I have to proclaim to the world I’m part of a Leska team?”
“The color only tells others you are of the Telepath Guild,” said Rhian calmly, her tail giving an involuntary twitch. “When the guild grades you, you’ll wear a mark of rank on your uniform. Next to it will be the symbol ‘L’ to show you are part of a Leska pair. It is necessary,” she said, her voice rising as Carrie opened her mouth to protest. “Should there be an accident, they will know that you have a partner nearby who must also be found. You’ll need to wear that badge on your leisure clothes, too. All this will be explained to you later, not now.”
Carrie subsided, muttering. “Kusac’s already told me.” She knew Rhian was not the one to argue with over this.
“Look,” said the Sholan female, reaching out fleetingly to touch Carrie on the arm. “You are a new species. Do you really think news of your telepathic abilities and your Link to one of our people hasn’t already spread throughout the ship? We’ve been in space for seven months now. It has been boring beyond belief until we arrived here. The events on Keiss, with you and Kusac as the central characters, will be the subject of gossip for a long time to come. What does a small insignia on your collar matter more or less? If you fight all our customs before you understand them, you’ll wear yourself out to no purpose. Now, come on,” she said persuasively. “You’re about to go and enjoy your first real Sholan meal with friends. Let’s choose something nice for you to wear.”
Despite her protests, Carrie let herself be persuaded into borrowing some of the less brightly colored clothes to augment her rather drab trousers. Those she refused to leave off. Finally she chose a long blue overtunic with panels split to mid thigh and a contrasting undertunic.
“Hm,” said Rhian, regarding her critically. “It’s longer on you because of your lack of height. Just as well you don’t have a tail,” she grinned, picking a purple sash off the bed and tying it round Carrie’s waist. “That’s better,” she said. “It matches the edging on the tunic.”
“Rhian, we’re only meeting up for a meal,” said Carrie, exasperated by the fuss the Sholan was making over her clothing.
“Meals, and first impressions, are important,” chided the older female. “You will blend in more if you dress like us. Besides, Kusac will like what you are wearing,” she said. “In fact, even though your legs are covered, the robe still enhances them enough to interest more males than just him, I’ll warrant! Now come, else we’ll be late.”
As Rhian grabbed her by the wrist and towed her into the lounge where Askad was waiting, Carrie made a low noise of disgust. She felt overdressed by her standards to say the least , and only hoped that Rhian knew what she was doing. Still, both she and her Leska were now wearing casual clothes of a similar style.
The trip to the mess hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared. There had been many curious glances, but they were just that, nothing more.
“Now you see why I suggested you wear Sholan clothes,” whispered Rhian as they joined Vanna and Garras at a small table in the quieter area of the room. “You are just the Terran Telepath to them, and naturally you would be in the company of other telepaths. ”
Rhian was right. Dressed as she was, she blended in amidst the colorfully dressed Sholans. She was glad to sit down and let the general hubbub of noise wash over her. In the more familiar company of Vanna and Garras–Mito having been unable to come–Carrie began to relax.
Kusac arrived late, fur still damp from his shower. He took the seat between Carrie and Rhian.
“Sorry I’m late, I had some business to attend to,” he apologized.
“Your first meal back on the Khalossa and you didn’t even bother changing,” scolded Rhian.
“It is a clean jacket. I didn’t want to keep you waiting any longer,” he said, turning to Carrie, his hand briefly touching hers in greeting.
“It’s as well you didn’t,” said Garras, an amused look on his face. “You might not have had a Leska waiting for you. We’ve had to fend off at least two hopeful young males.”
“Excuse me?” said Carrie, startled .
“Pheromones,” stated Vanna. “Jo has to be right. ”
“Are you trying to tell me . . . ? You mean they weren’t just being friendly?”
“They were being very friendly, until we suggested they leave,” said Askad with a grin.
“How could they!” exclaimed Carrie. “Surely they know I have a Leska,” she faltered, glancing at Kusac.
“There’s no need to take offense,” said Rhian, puzzled by the human female’s reaction. “They were very careful to behave courteously.”
“Carrie’s people form a bond with only one person,” said Kusac quietly.
“Ah, like the Touibans,” said Askad.
“No harm was done, Carrie, nor insult intended,” said Vanna, leaning forward to pat the girl reassuringly on the hand. “In fact the opposite.”
“I said more than Kusac would find you attractive, didn’t I?” said Rhian with a laugh that bordered on a purr.
“Let’s get some food,” said Kusac abruptly, getting to his feet and waiting for Carrie to join him.
Confused, she reached for him as she got to her feet. Mentally and physically, he lent a steadying hand.
It’s the Sholan way, cub, he sent. Look at the memories you gained from me when we Linked the first time. You’ll understand it better now. Vanna or Rhian can tell you more about our ways. Ask them.
Are your women often approached like this?
It depends. Often they do the approaching too. He hesitated. There are ways I can prevent this happening if you wish.
I wish! Do it now.
No one will approach you when we’re together, he said, his hand tightening on hers. We’ll talk of other ways later.
Reassured, she moved closer to him as they approached the serving area.
“Did Rhian lend you those clothes?” he asked. “You look really good in them. They suit you.”
“She wanted me to wear the Telepath Guild colors.”
“Sensible. It gives you the protection of my guild from the first. Now, let’s see what they’ve got to eat today,” he said, stopping at a board of glowing cursive script.
The meals she’d shared with them so far hadn’t prepared her for the food on the Khalossa. The Sholan diet was rich in meats, but the variety of sauces they were either cooked in or served with was extensive. Vegetables and fruit were numerous too.
After they’d eaten, they made their way from the mess through to the main concourse, the common leisure area of the Khalossa. It was very different from what she had seen of the ship so far. Here was no narrow corridor of identical doorways all painted a utilitarian restful gray.
The first thing that struck Carrie about the concourse, apart from how large and open it was, was the view. The blackness of space lit by a myriad of tiny pinpoints of light gleamed beyond the transparent wall. She could only stand and stare in wonder as the limitless vista called to something deep in her soul.
She reached out, fingers tentatively touching the window. In her mind she could feel Kusac’s gentle amusement.
This is why you and I left our home, he sent, his hand closing on her shoulder. A new life and new worlds among the stars.
It’s so beautiful, I had no idea!
How could you, tied to one world? He gestured with his other hand toward the stars. That’s where the future lies, and we’re part of it.
Yes, she sighed, laying both palms against the cool surface. No barriers to stop us, just the vastness of space before us. I don’t think I could bear to leave it.
“I don’t want to hurry you,” said Vann’s voice from behind them, “but you’ve been starstruck for the last ten minutes! Do you think we could leave now? I’d rather like to get a drink.”
“I’m sorry, Vanna,” said Carrie, turning around. “It’s just so beautiful!”
“I gathered you were somewhat impressed by it when your eyes glazed over and you started stalking across the concourse. It was as if nothing else existed, the way you were prepared to walk through anyone in your way!”
“I didn’t,” said Carrie aghast, looking round in embarrassment. Sholans sitting around the tables by the window were regarding their little group with indulgent amusement.
Put your shield up, cub, came Kusac’s warning. They aren’t laughing at you, they’re just enjoying your pleasure. It reminds them of their first time in space.
Carrie concentrated on building a mental barrier as they moved off toward one of the doorways with tables and chairs outside it.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“This is called the concourse,” said Garras. “Over there are the main stores for both ship levels. That’s where we get all the day-to-day essentials like brushes, soap — stuff like that.”
“Over there,” said Vanna, pointing to the opposite side, “that’s where you get the few luxury items that the Khalossa carries. Hair decorations, cosmetics, some leisure clothes, snack foods — things that make life a little more varied on a starship like this.”
“In the center they sell memory cubes for the comms and the notepads, ones with books on them,” said Kusac.
“Books? What kind of books?”
“Whatever you want,” said Vanna. “Some are stories told by our leading storytellers, others you read yourself. You can get them on any subject you want. Like the clothing, if they haven’t got it in, they can order it for delivery on the next supply ship.”
“Would you like to go into the store?” asked Rhian.
“No, thanks,” she said, moving closer to Kusac as she became aware that she was the focus of many curious looks. Suddenly the concourse seemed full of people. A headache was building and all she wanted to do was sit down in a quiet area away from the noise and bustle.
Remember your shield, cub, sent Kusac, picking up on her distress.
As she strengthened her barrier again, the headache began to fade and the noise seemed to lessen.
“It’s a shift change,” siad Vanna. “That’s why it’s gotten so busy. Let’s get settled before all the seats are gone.”
The bar was not dissimilar to her father’s, having a long counter with several tall stools placed beside it as well as the surrounding tables and chairs. They chose to sit at the counter, the six of them forming a little knot at one end. Perhaps because of the semifamiliar surroundings, or perhaps because of the company, she finally found herself slipping back into the easier relationship she’d had with Kusac before the raid on the Valtegan base. She’d found a referent to counter the culture shock that has suddenly begun to hit her.
Since leaving Rhian and Askad’s quarters, she’d been watching the Sholans, trying to see them as a people now that she had the opportunity. They were gregarious, liking to be in groups rather than couples. As Vanna and Kusac had said, there were far more males than females but that didn’t stop their clothing from being on the flamboyant side. Her outfit was nothing spectacular compared to some.
They were also a highly tactile species, as she had already guessed. Within their groups, they frequently touched their partners or friends. The exceptions were her telepath companions. She’d already picked up Rhian and Askad’s reluctance to touch anyone not of their guild, but they showed their affection for their friends in the featherlight touch of fingers against their cheeks.
The same was true with Kusac, though tonight he touched no one but her, his hand straying frequently to where hers lay on the counter. His need to touch her, as if for reassurance she was there–not to mention her growing reciprocal need–was no more than others were doing.
She sat quietly, sipping the rather heady drink she’d been given and listened to them discussing the reports they were due to hand in to the Admin office in the morning. She leaned against Kusac, pleased when he put an arm around her shoulders, his fingertips gently stroking her neck for a moment or two.
“Kusac, what happens when you’ve to go back to work?” she asked. “What do I do? Come to think of it, what do you do?”
“We’re on leave for the moment.” he said. “After what we went through on Keiss, we’ve been given ten days off.”
“You’ve got longer,” said Askad. “New Leska pairs get an extra five days, fifteen in all, so as to get to know their partner better. During that time they meet with their Tutor to assess their working capabilities. Once that’s been done, then they’re reassigned to appropriate duties. I presume the same will happen with you.”
“What do telepaths do on the Khalossa? What do you do?”
“I don’t so much do, as work with people and advise them about what needs doing,” he said vaguely, keeping his eyes turned away from Rhian and Askad.
“Yes, what have you been doing, Kusac?” asked Rhian, her tone a little sharp. “You’re wearing a grade five badge, but I’ll warrant that isn’t your true level.”
“It was suggested that I needed the experience, so I’ve been working with the military protectorate in the trop levels. Yuu know the sort of thing,” he said. “Assessing situations and advising what level of telepath is needed to defuse any potential trouble. Glorified crowd control.”
“Hm,” siad Rhian, obviously not convinced. “It’ll be interesting to see what you’re doing three weeks from now.”
“You want to know what we do,” siad Vanna from across the curve of the bartop. “Well, I’m up in the medical section taking my turn in the wards with any of the injured or ill, or I’m in the labs running tests. I was included on the Sirrokibecause it was on a three-month mission, and they needed a medic on board.”
“I pilot scouters,” siad Garras. “Normally I’d be plying the trade routes for my clan, but I was drafted in to fly the scouters doing reconnaissance and survey work. Again, I’ll be on leave for the next few days. After that, who knows what they’ll find for me to do?”
“It’s not exactly leave,” siad Vanna. “We’ve still to be properly debriefed. AlRel will want to talk to us, then they’ll want us to have medicals. The Telepathic Medics have scheduled a session for you tomorrow morning, Carrie. It won’t be too much of an ordeal as they’ve been told you’re a healer. That means no psych profiles and a minimal physical examination. Rhian and I will be with you, so you won’t have to go through it alone,” she reassured her. She looked up to Kusac. “Your session is in the afternoon.”
“Are they afraid I’m carrying some strange germs or something?” asked Carrie.
“No, of course not,” she laughed. “We all went through decontam as we came off the shuttle. You’re a new species, they want some tissue and blood samples so they can run their batteries of tests. If you take ill, they have to know how you’ll respond to our drugs. They also need to key your physiology into the computers so we know how to reproduce your blood, plasma–all those things.”
Underlying Vanna’s voice, Carrie was aware of the sound of Terrans coming into the bar.
“Why do they want to see me?” asked Kusac.
“They don’t, I do,” said Vanna. “I’m curious to see if there have been any chemical changes in your brain because of your Link. And I want to check on your leg wound. The bandage needs changing.”
Kusac frowned thoughtfully.
Carrie meanwhile had leaned back to glance quickly towards the door. It was Skai and the rest of the Terran party. She ducked back against Kusac, trying to make herself invisible in the faint hope they wouldn’t recognize her. Several of the Sholan women she’d seen wore their hair long.
Skai spotted Vanna and called out a friendly greeting just as Kusac picked up Carrie’s distress.
“I hear there’s a Terran woman on board,” said a loud voice, “keeping company with one of your males.”
Kusac, leaning down towards Carrie, froze.
“That’s him,” said Lawson, the owner of the voice as he walked over towards them. “The telepath. Found one of your own kind instead, eh?” His ribald laugh died as Kusac turned to face him, exposing Carrie.
“So they were right,” he continued, his voice low and full of venom. “You’re the one from Geshader. Bloody little no-good tramp!”
Kusac began to snarl, lips pulled back to expose his large and deadly canines. “How dare you talk to my Leska like that.”
Skai tried to pull him back. “Leave it, Lawson. You met her sister, not Carrie.”
“So?” said the man belligerently, pulling away. “Some bloody family they are! Both of them no better than . . .”
“Shut up, Lawson!” said Anders, cutting him short and trying to step between him and Kusac. “You’ve had too much to drink. Leave them be, they aren’t harming anyone. It’s none of our business.”
Carrie moved back, trying frantically to get off her stool. Fear and anger warred in her in equal proportions and she knew Kusac could feel it.
“No, I won’t shut up,” said Lawson, staggering slightly as he pulled free of Skai for the second time. “I want to know why she keeps screwing aliens! Is she a pervert or something?”
Skai backed off, trying to catch Carrie’s eye, but it was Vanna that was staring at him.
“Nothing to do with me, honestly,” he said, spreading his arms.
Anders grabbed for Lawson as the fourth member of their group ran to help. Together they tried to haul him back towards the door.
As Kusac leapt off his stool, Carrie lost her balance and tumbled off to be caught by Garras. She was thrust unceremoniously towards Vanna as he left the bar to circle round the side of the angry group.
Slowly Kusac padded over to where Anders and Perry had managed to haul Lawson. He was in a half crouch, tail lashing, ears so flat and to the side they were almost lost against his black fur. The hair across his neck and shoulders was raised and from his narrowed eyes, the pupils glowed red.
Carrie sensed Lawson through Kusac’s huntersight. He had focused on his prey with the concentration and single-mindedness of a telepath. His need to kill this . . . person . . . for such a mortal insult was paramount.
“Garras!” Carrie called out frantically. “For God’s sake stop him! He’s Hunting!”
Kusac stood before the man, trying to force back the tide of anger that raced through his blood. At his sides his hands clenched, fresh pain shooting through his already injured palms but by doing that he managed to keep his claws retracted. He’d had enough of the Terran bigotry.
Lawson, with the strength of the drunk, pulled free of the two men and crouched down in a parody of Kusac’s stance. The large man spread his arms. “Come on, kitty. What’re you going to do, eh?”
“He’ll do nothing,” sneered Norris, who till now had kept out of it. “He’s got no guts, he’s only a Telepath! They can’t fight. Stupid bitch couldn’t even choose a real cat!”
The angry group had spread to the center of the room by now. Around them, the Sholans were hurriedly leaping out of the way, one or two braver souls hauling the nearest tables clear.
Instinct suddenly took over and Kusac lashed out at Lawson’s head. The human went sprawling, crashing into Anders, then staggering to a halt against a table.
Kusac leapt after him only to find Garras there first. The Captain pushed Kusac back then caught the blow intended for the telepath in a fist twice the size of Lawson’s. With his other fist he landed a blow of his own, hitting the Terran on the jaw and felling him like a male rhakla. The two Sholans exchanged a brief glance then turned to face the other Terrans.
“First bar brawl?” Garras asked Kusac with humor. “Enjoy it, just get out of hunter/kill mode,” he growled, landing Kusac a stinging blow across the ears.
“Hey!” said Kusac, shaking his head and blinking, but it had had the desired effect. The killing urge had gone. Perversely, he wished it hadn’t.
Skai and Anders, hands held up at shoulder level to show their neutral state, were backing off, leaving Perry and Norris. Hurriedly Perry joined them.
Likewise, Garras moved away from Kusac.
“Well, now,” Norris drawled. “Looks like it’s just you and me.”
Kusac’s mind was suddenly swamped by Carrie’s memories of his last fight, the Death Challenge that Guynor had called. Mentally he called Rhian, telling her to get Carrie out of there and back to their quarters, then he blanked his Leska out.
Norris took advantage of his apparent hesitation and came barreling in, determined to get in as close as possible before the deadly claws could get him.
The first blow caught Kusac in the stomach, winding him and causing him to double up. This gave Norris the opportunity to land a couple of punches before Kusac was able to recover enough to retaliate.
Shoving him backwards, Kusac swung at the Terran’s head but missed and hit him a glancing blow on the shoulder instead. His hand drew back ready to try again, then he was roughly seized from behind.
“Enough!” a voice bellowed in his ear as his arms were pulled backwards and pinned behind him. He remained still as the security personnel pounced on Norris, Garras and the Terrans.
Oblivious to his own situation, Kusac sent again to Rhian, demanding to know if they had got clear before security had arrived.
We’re clear and on our way home, she replied.
They were hauled before Sub-Commander Kolem, who didn’t take kindly to the incident. After a blistering dressing-down to Sholans and Terrans alike–relayed to the latter group by the senior telepath translator on duty–they were dismissed. The Terrans, in the custody of two security guards, were escorted to their quarters to remain there until the following day. Garras and Kusac remained behind.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” demanded Sub-Commander Kolem. “You were the ones who contacted these people first, the ones who gave them an impression–Vartra help us!–of all Sholans! You lived with them, fought for them, made a trade agreement with them,” his eyes pinned Garras at this, “started peace negotiations with them, and now you engage them in a barroom brawl!”
Garras flinched from the glare, ears lowering.
Kolem got to his feet and began pacing, tail flicking from side to side in barely suppressed fury. “Never in all my years in the Forces have I had to discipline a ship’s Captain or a telepath for brawling. What in hell am I supposed to do with you?” he demanded of Kusac.
“Are you listening to me?”
Kusac nodded, eyes beginning to glaze noticeably.
Kolem grunted and began pacing again. “We’ve barely begun negotiations with Hamilton, and your Link to his daughter has weakened our position. He isn’t yet aware of the implications of that bond, but he’s damned suspicious and displeased about it. Your actions today could have jeopardized the treaty before it’s even been drafted!” He stopped in front of Kusac again. “With your background, there is no excuse for this kind of behavior. Of all people, I should have been able to rely on you to keep the peace!”
Angrily he returned to his desk. “Garras, brawling like a junior officer is not what I expect from a Captain of your seniority, even if you have been drafted in from the Merchants. Your leave is canceled. You’ll return to duty on your next scheduled shift. Till then you’re confined to your quarters,” he snapped.
“Sub-Commander,” interrupted Adjutant Myak, moving forward to catch Kusac as he began to sway. “His Leska is in severe distress. She’s broadcasting on a wide band, every telepath will be picking her up. Look at him,” he said as Kusac gratefully leaned against him, “he’s taking little of this in because of her mental state.”
Kolem made an exasperated noise. “Get him out of here! See he joins her. And fetch the medic, the one who was with them on Keiss. I want that Terran female calmed down now before the Telepath Guild starts their complaints! Kusac’s confined to quarters until further notice.”
“Yes sir,” said Myak, assisting Kusac through to the outer office. “I’ll see to it personally.”
When Garras left, Kolem turned to Draz, head of security. “What was the fracas about?”
“Species prejudice from two of the Terrans, sir. Specifically comments relating to the nature of the relationship between our crewman and the human female.”
“Who was responsible for the Terrans’ orientation program? They should have picked up those sort of attitudes then and dealt with them so this sort of situation couldn’t occur!”
`”Apparently it hasn’t taken place yet, sir. It’s scheduled for the sixth hour tomorrow. Unfortunately, I was not informed of this, or I would have ordered that the Terrans be confined to their quarters till then.”
“Find out who’s responsible. I’ll nail their hides to the wall,” growled Kolem, flinging himself into his seat. “Right now the fate of this sector of space hangs in the balance. We must secure this treaty, or the Alliance remains vulnerable to further Valtegan attacks. If anything happens to Kusac or his Leska, we could have more trouble than you or I could imagine, both from Shola and from Keiss, and we’re stuck right in the middle of it.”
He shook his head. “A telepath with an alien Leska, a telepath who now initiates fights! The Commander is just going to love this.” He sighed. “You’d better prepare a report for Commander Raguul as soon as possible. See that someone from your department escorts Kusac and his Leska to meals until we’ve transferred them to Leska quarters. At least he has her company.”
“Apparently not, sir. My men tell me that she is staying with the Leska pair, Rhian and Askad.”
Kolem lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “I presume the guild is aware of this?”
“Yes, sir. They have their own people watching them.”
“Poor devils. They can’t make a move without someone seeing it. Well, I suppose it’s the price they have to pay for their Link.”
“Yes, sir,” said Draz dubiously.
“Contact the guild anyway, Draz. I want them to find out why I suddenly have a territorial male telepath on my crew. Commander Raguul will shortly be asking me the same question, and I want to have an answer for him.”
Vanna was leaving as Kusac arrived with Myak. “I was coming to look for you,” she said to him. “I’ll take care of him, Lieutenant, if you have no objections?”
“Certainly, Physician Kijishi,” said Myak, disentangling himself from Kusac’s arm and letting her take his weight.
Vanna raised an eye ridge at the Lieutenant, ears swiveling towards him as she wrapped an arm round Kusac’s waist.
“Commander Raguul would like to see you as soon as is convenient,” Myak said quietly to her before he left.
When he’d gone, Kusac pulled himself upright, leaning against the doorframe. “Promotion?” he asked tiredly.
“And how,” said Vanna. “I wonder what the cost is. That sort of promotion doesn’t come cheap. Never mind that. I’ve given Carrie a suppressant. It should take full effect in about fifteen or so minutes. Can you cope for now or do you need one too?”
He shook his head. “I’ll manage,” he said. “It’s only making me light headed now. The nause’s stopped.” He started to move slowly toward the doors at the far end of the room. “Which room is she in?”
“On the right. I’ll wait for you,” she said, her professional eye picking up the tinge of white that were his nictitating lids showing at the edges of his eyes.
So great was the turmoil in her mind that Carrie remained unaware of his presence until he sat down on the bed beside her.
As she turned round, he took her hands in his.
It’s alright. I’m here and safe, and so are you, he sent.
“I’ve had enough, Kusac,” she said. “I can’t take any more of this reaction to us. When we’re alone like this, it’s fine, we’re all that matters. With others around . . .” Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Your people are alright. It’s mine that are the problem.” A tear ran down her cheek.
“Don’t cry, cub,” he said, tilting her chin up to wipe the tear away. “The Terrans won’t be on board for long. I’ll make sure we stay away from them if you prefer.” His hand moved to the back of her neck, gently soothing the tight muscles, thinking relaxation into her body. He could feel the drug beginning to work as her thoughts became gradually weaker.
“Can’t you see that it shouldn’t have to be like this?” she said. “Why can’t they accept that we have a loving friendship and just leave us alone?”
There was an edge of hysteria to her voice that troubled him.
“A little more than a friendship,” he murmured, as his eyes were unconsciously drawn to her throat. Long and slender, it was a throat that many a Sholan female would kill for. He caught himself up and looked back to her face.
Another tear, quickly followed by a third, was falling.
“They won’t let us have anything, Kusac,” she said. “All we really have is this damned link. I wish it had never happened!”
“This isn’t like you, cub,” he said, encircling her in his arms and drawing her close. “I know you don’t really mean that. We have the Link, yes, but we also have each other.” He nuzzled her chin upwards, this time licking her tears away.
He felt her stiffen slightly, the,. as he continued to lick her check, she relaxed. Her hands came up to rest on his arms and her fingertips began to push through the thick pile of his fur seeking the skin beneath.
He kissed her, letting his feelings for her come to the surface of his mind, slowly at first, waiting till she accepted them. This time, for a wonder, she did and he felt her mind begin to quiet and respond to him.
He let his hand stray across her arm, then down her back to her thigh, enjoying the clean muscular feel of her limbs. Differences between their species there were, but she possessed many of the qualities Sholan males looked for in their women.
The compulsion born of their Link had built so gradually in him this time that only now did he realize it was there. He felt it echoed in her as hesitantly her fingers searched for the seal on his jacket. His hand guided her as she opened it, then as she laid her head against his chest, he began to untie the sash around her tunic.
Cautiously he slid his hand across the bare skin of her back. Perhaps finally they could resolve the physical side of their Link.
She froze, her mind losing its softness and becoming brittle again as she pulled back from him, a look of panic on her face.
Kusac released her instantly. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“This isn’t us, Kusac, it’s the damned link,” she said, a catch in her voice as she continued to back away from him. “I won’t be driven by this compulsion!”
“You’ve got it confused, cub,” he said, forcing himself to remain calm. “The compulsion only enhances what we feel for each other. If our emotions weren’t involved, there would be no worrying over whether what we feel is us or the Link. Pairing is only the mechanism that brings Leskas close enough so they can work as a bonded team. It’s part of their working relationship. You’re worrying over something that is too small to matter.”
“It’s important to me,” she said, fetching up against the wall at the head of the bed. “I’ve lived too long with other people’s illusions of what I am and what I should be. I want to know what’s real for me. ”
She pulled her legs up, wrapping her arms protectively round them. “My head is full of memories that aren’t mine, Kusac. They’re yours, yet they feel as real to me as if I’d lived them. Maybe it’s easier for you with your training, but that coupled with being always aware of what you’re thinking and doing means I’m losing myself and becoming only `us, and it frightens me!”
“That’s because the Link is still incomplete, Carrie,” he said. “We need to pair to make it complete, then it will be easier, I promise.”
“How can you know?” she demanded. “You’ve never had a Leska before.”
“I checked it out in the Guild files,” he said.
“Theory! What do they know about us or our Link? I’m an alien, or hadn’t you noticed?” she said caustically.
“I’d noticed,” he said, suppressing his anger. “Were you Sholan, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There are no guarantees, Carrie, you know that. I can only tell you what is known about Leska Links.”
He sighed and got to his feet. “This is getting us nowhere. We can’t go on like this, Leska. I can’t cope with any more of this, it’s too painful for both of us. You know what I feel for you and you know what I have to offer. If you want me, you come. You’ve got four days in which to decide; I can’t give you any longer. If your answer is no, then somehow I’ll find a way to break the Link. It should be possible since, as you reminded me, you’re an alien, not a Sholan.”
Stopping at the door to fasten his jacket, he turned back to her. “You aren’t a youngling, Carrie. You’re a grown female among your own kind. Find out what your heart wants, what is really important to you, not what your intellect says should be. Just see you don’t leave it too long, or I may not be there for you when you finally make your decision.”
As he closed the door behind him, Vanna looked up.
“Where’s Rhian and Askad?” he asked.
“In the other room, keeping out of the way of Carrie’s broadcast. How is she? Even with the slight differences in her system the drug should have taken effect by now.”
“The drug’s working. I can feel her presence in my mind, but that’s all. She’s emotionally overwrought at the moment, Vanna. I think it best she remains here tonight. Rhian has agreed,” he said, making his way across the room to her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked sharply, getting to her feet as she saw the set of his ears.
“Nothing. I’m just tired, that’s all.”
“I don’t believe that for a moment,” she said, reaching up to touch his cheek. “You’ve got a nasty bruise coming there. Let me see to it.”
He pulled away from her, going to the door. “I’m fine. Look, I’ve got to go. I’m confined to quarters because of the fight.” He touched the door sensor, waiting for it to open. “I’ll see you later.”
“I’m finished here,” she said, following him. “Don’t forget that appointment at the medical section tomorrow afternoon.”
Carrie sat looking bleakly at the door. Well, she’d got what she’d asked for. Her mind was quiet, just an awareness of a faint pressure that was Kusac, none of his thoughts. He’d given her the time and space that she’d asked for.
She sat there, going over in her mind what he’d said about the link. Unbidden, memories of time spent studying and practicing linking in to medics, to Chemerians and Touibans all came flooding in, demanding to be sorted and relearned by her. Whatever she chose, there would always be Kusac’s memories. Her headache began to return as, panicking, she fought to control them, to push them down to a level where they wouldn’t intrude on her consciousness.
“. . .the Link is still incomplete.” She heard the echo of his voice as finally she succeeded, knowing it was only a temporary victory. Instinctively she reached for him but met only solitude and the pain flaring behind her eyes.